The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: World War I

The Power Of The Individual

One of the main reasons the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park were successful could be contributed to the German overconfidence in the Enigma machine. Their hubris blinded them, and this blinding trust in the strength of Enigma ultimately led to the German downfall. However, certain individuals also contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Germans - Hans-Thilo Schmidt and Marian Rejewski. These individual contributions would prove invaluable throughout the war.

Schmidt's story shows the effects of the negative German culture. Because he was deemed unworthy, he was forced to leave his position on the army. In addition, his failed business and his descent into poverty left him resentful toward Germany. Had the Germans simply decided not to cut him from their ranks, they could have potentially avoided the Allies' cracking of Enigma. Disillusioned with his country, he sought revenge. Without Schmidt's treachery, the Allies would never have obtained a functioning Enigma machine that could function similarly to the German military machines.

Rejewski's work at the Biuro Szyfrow introduced the importance of mathematics and logic into cryptanalysis. With his famous Rejewski Chains, he was able to crack the earlier version of Enigma before the Germans added more scramblers and plugboards to make it more difficult. His work proved that mathematics and logic were extremely important once cryptography became mechanized. The work of linguists analyzing patterns was no longer enough. Despite Rejewsi's work being essentially useless as Schmidt had given up the German keys for months, his work made it possible for the Allies in the future war efforts to crack the new and improved German Enigma machine. This crucial information gave the Allies a head start and the confidence that Enigma could be beaten.

Without these two individuals, the Allied cryptanalysts may never have achieved victory over the Germans. Although there are many factors that contribute to their victory, the influence of brilliant individuals cannot be ignored.

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Morality v. Pragmatism

The question of ethics comes up a lot in regards to cryptography. At its core, things tend to only require encryption if, for some reason, someone doesn't want them seen. More often than not people do not mind others seeing their good, moral deeds. What's interesting about the Zimmerman deciphering is that the morals in question have nothing to do with the encrypted information, but rather what was done with it.

On the one hand, what Admiral Hall did was incredibly immoral. He actively chose to withhold information that could potentially prevent countless American deaths. The United States had already lost over a hundred lives to German submarine warfare, which is why the President was so adamant to prevent future attacks of that nature. By actively withholding the information within the Zimmerman telegram from America, the Admiral made the choice to endanger the lives of Americans should his cryptographers fail to break the rest of the cipher before Germany mobilized its fleet.

On the other hand, what Admiral Hall did was not necessarily immoral but rather pragmatic. If the Germans had discovered that British forces could decipher their messages, the encryption techniques would have only become more sophisticated. This increased sophistication would have seriously hurt long term war efforts, which (since the war continued on for many more years) would most likely have resulted in more lost lives than would be found from the submarine warfare.

Also, there is no telling what the Admiral would have done with the information had his analysts not cracked the rest of the cipher in time. Singh describes a situation where the Admiral was waiting for the rest of that decryption in case a caveat, or some other relevant piece of information, was revealed in the rest of the text. It is entirely possible that, in the event his cryptanalysts had failed to decode the rest of the telegram, he still would have passed the decrypted message onto the Americans.

In cases such as these, and in any case of war, it is difficult to talk in terms of morality. Rather, it is clear that the actions the Admiral took worked out favorably in the end. Had the message not been deciphered at all, or had the Admiral never revealed the message to the Americans, we would be telling a very different story today.

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The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall's decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear--the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, "which path will save the most lives?" There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn't apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy's actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.

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The Wartime Gray Zone - Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram

British Admiral William Hall ultimately made the decision to keep the United States in the dark about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, but was it ethical? I think the answer depends on whose perspective you view it from.

From the perspective of Great Britain and their military efforts, it was the ethical (and right) thing to do. If Britain made the decrypted telegraph public, or even just gave it to the Americans, Germany would know that their encryption had been cracked, and Britain would immediately lose the cryptographic advantage that they had just gained. Since America was not officially in the war, and was neutral, Britain had no real loyalty to warn President Wilson. Furthermore, the unrestricted submarine warfare would start whether the Americans knew about it beforehand or not, and the British had not completely finished deciphering the message before that date came and went.

From a more global perspective of humanity, it was not an ethical decision. Admiral Hall had the opportunity to warn the United States about attacks that might harm or kill Americans, but he did not. His motives were also partly selfish for Britain, wanting American to join the war and the Allies, giving them a much-needed boost on the European front. In my opinion, a military alliance where countries don't share intelligence about possible attacks against their allies is not a good relationship and is an unethical way to conduct such a "friendship."

Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white, and the Zimmerman telegram is no exception. Admiral Hall made a strategic and ethically arguable decision in keeping the telegram from the Americans, but William the human made an unethical decision in choosing to not potentially save the lives of innocent people.

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Victory At All Costs

The Zimmerman telegram could be described as the key leading to an allied victory and the end of the war. However, after being deciphered, Admiral William Hall decided to keep America in the dark, withholding the contents of the telegram from President Wilson. Despite the immediate danger this posed to the United States, I believe Admiral Hall made the correct decision. Disclosing the contents of the telegram would have alerted the Germans to the vulnerabilities in their encryption, leading them to create more secure ciphers and eventually cutting off British access to German information.

Essentially, this boils down to whether or not "the end justifies the means". Although this paved the way to an allied victory, keeping the telegram a secret endangered countless american lives. One could argue Admiral Hall's decision was extremely unethical, as it unnecessary risked peoples' lives. Needless deaths must be avoided, even if it leads to a faster victory. The means are simply too cruel to justify the end. However, keeping the telegram a secret potentially changed the course of the war. Although American involvement was believed to ensure an allied victory, it was not guaranteed. The British access to German intelligence proved to be invaluable to their war effort, and saving more lives was not as important as keeping these intelligence lines open. With this intelligence, the British forces could always stay one step ahead of the German offensive. This aided greatly in preventing the Germans from dominating the war, and essentially allowed the allied forces to emerge victory. Thus, safekeeping this crucial line of intel proved much more important than saving more american lives. In addition, Admiral Hall's plans to intercept the German's telegram in Mexico would lead to President Wilson learning of the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. Although he would learn of its contents late, the effect of the telegram still stirred America to action. Thus, immediately sending the Zimmerman telegram to America was not even completely necessary. Overall, victory was the main objective, and thus the end did justify the means.

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Contextual Ethics

Ethics in times of war must be thought of differently from ethics in times of peace, however much we may want it to be otherwise. The focus of ethics during wartimes turns to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is sacrificing the wellbeing of a few for the good of the many. It is “big-picture” thinking, striving to benefit as many people as possible, even if that means a few people must get hurt along the way.

When thought of in that context, Britain’s Admiral Hall’s decision not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about the Zimmerman telegram makes perfect sense. If he had told President Wilson the contents of the telegram, the Germans would have been alerted to the fact that the British were able to read their messages, and would have changed their codes and created additional obstacles for Britain’s cryptanalysts, potentially costing Allied lives. The danger posed to America by Germany’s U-boat warfare, by comparison, put far less lives at risk, especially because it seemed likely that the United States would enter the war after the beginning of the U-boat attacks.

The reason Admiral Hall’s decision would seem unethical in the context of today is that the major powers of the world have not been involved in a worldwide or home-turf war in some 70 years, since the end of the Second World War. The focus of ethics has shifted from utilitarianism to a more deontological ethical viewpoint. Deontology, contrary to utilitarianism, concentrates on how ethical an action is without consideration for the consequences of the action. In this situation, it would seem Admiral Hall had a moral obligation to inform President Wilson of the Zimmerman telegram, simply because it would be “the right thing to do.” However, when thought of in the context of the First World War, Admiral Hall’s decision to bring the United States into the war in a more roundabout way seems the more logical and ethical choice.

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The Truth Behind the Zimmerman Telegram

In 1917, during the height of World War I, the British intercepted a German telegram (the Zimmermann Telegram) that was meant for the Mexican government.  The Germans called for unrestricted submarine warfare, which violated a previous agreement with the United States, and proposed that if Mexico invaded the United States, Mexico would receive United States territory at the end of the war.

In high school history classes, we are told that as soon the British caught word of this duplicitous German telegram, the United States' government was immediately notified.  However, as Singh explains in the third chapter of The Code Book, the British initially withheld the information, at the potential cost of American lives due to unrestricted submarine warfare, in order to protect the cryptographic advancements of the British.  At first, I thought that the actions of the British were wrong.  The lives of innocent people were on the line.  Yet, I realize that from a broader perspective, the move to protect British cryptographic intelligence was ethical and necessary, because in the end, it led to the demise of the Germans and to the end of the war.

If the British had immediately informed the American government of the Zimmermann Telegram, chances are the United States would have publicly condemned Germany for its actions.  The success of the British codebreakers would have become known, and the Germans would have realized that their ciphers would need improving.  Had the Germans known this, they could have created a better, more impenetrable cipher, and the Allies would have been back at square one.  Since the Germans were unaware that their cipher had been broken (they believed that the Mexican government had handed over the telegram to the United States), the Allies had an upper hand, because they now knew the German code.

Overall, the British decision was ethical, because in the grand scheme of the war, more lives were saved by defeating the Germans than lives that would have been lost from unrestricted submarine warfare.  By protecting British cryptographic intelligence, Germany was blindsided and fell behind in their cryptographic advancements.  Because of this, Germany lost yet another advantage in the war.


Ethical yet Reasonable?

After Reverend Montgomery and Nigel de Grey deciphered the Zimmermann telegram, Admiral Sir William Hall refused to turn it over to the Americans. His decision not to tell President Wilson about its contents was not ethical, but it is somewhat understandable.

With the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, German U-boats were prepared to attack any and all ships in the war-zone waters, including civilian passenger carriers. Given the high number of lives at risk, it was definitely unethical for Admiral Hall to withhold this information. Hall knew that the U-boat onslaught was going to begin in a mere two weeks, and the fact that he did not notify the United States reveals his apparent insensitivity for the lives of others.

However, war is often about taking risks. It could be argued that keeping the Zimmermann message private was a beneficial risk to take. Preventing the Germans from finding out that their encryption method had been compromised may have actually saved a greater number of lives than disclosing the message would have. If the Germans had found out about the decipherment and had created a new and stronger encryption method, the British would no longer have been able to easily decrypt their messages. This could have led to a longer war with a higher death toll.

It is unknown whether Admiral Hall was simply being selfish in keeping the message from the Americans or if he truly thought that it was in everyone’s best interest to keep the message private until it could be disclosed without the Germans finding out that their cipher had been cracked. Either way, it was undoubtedly unethical, yet reasonable, of Admiral Hall to withhold the information from the Americans.

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